Authors: Alfred Reynolds
Sometimes those who dare to fear are the bravest of all.
Banished for cowardice by the stern code of his tribe, Karl set out on his kitewing glider to seek a new life beyond his native Karanga.
But on the other side of the desert lay a danger so great it would test the limits of his skill as a flyer, and his courage as a man.
The Deadly Choice
To the south, Karl could see the great cinder cone of Angastora, Karanga's highest volcano. A short while later, he landed on the rim. Beneath him, the snow fields gleamed with blinding light. Suddenly, above the steady rumble, Karl heard the thin hissing of air on leather. He turned to see another kiteman land nearby, on the edge of the precipice. It was Garth.
"So, coward, don't look surprised. I promised I would follow you!" Garth pulled his spear back, ready to throw. Another spear smashed into the rocks just in front of him, and Karl knew that Garth had not come alone.
Karl had only one chance. He swung around, kicked free from the precipice, and dove down into the heart of the volcano....
For Alex and Marle Warner
"Good-bye my son. You have disgraced your family once. I hope you will not disgrace us a second time."
His father's hand left his shoulder and Karl fell back as if from a blow. His father's touch had been hard and without feeling, and this visit was the last Karl would receive. At dawn Karl would either be killed or banished—and the choice would be his own.
Don't disgrace us a second time.
So his father wanted him to choose death! Could a coward's shame be washed away only by dying? Karl knew the answer. It was the law of his people.
Exhausted and feeling so alone that even a rat would have been welcome company, Karl thought again of the terry hunt which had led to his present predicament. He had been with Bron that day—Bron, the great hunter, who was also his teacher and friend. It had been an honor to have been chosen by Bron for one's first terry hunt. The terry hunt, above all others, was the most dangerous and yet the most necessary to his people. Boys trained for years and practiced gliding in their kitewings until they could soar like condors before they were finally chosen by experienced hunters to go after game. But only by hunting the terry, the gigantic, flying reptiles that sought food in their mountains, could his people obtain the thin, incredibly tough skins they used to make their kite wing gliders. And in Karanga you had to fly to hunt. The vast distances between Karanga's arid mountain valleys made hunting on foot impossible.
"I'm not ready for the terry hunt," Karl had stammered when Bron had spoken to him.
"No one feels ready for his first terry," the great hunter had replied with a broad smile. "But you're approaching manhood, Karl, and this is a test that must be passed. Besides, I've already told the others that you'll be coming with us."
So Karl had agreed. After all, it was Bron who had taught him to fly a kitewing and had trained him to be a hunter. If Bron thought he was ready, it had to be true.
At noon the terry hunters set up their kitewings and departed in three teams of two. Riding the air currents created by Karanga's hot sun, the hunters traveled swiftly across the open landscape looking for game. By late afternoon they had killed antelope for bait in a valley far away and had settled down to await the terrys, the gray-green reptilian scavengers with forty-foot wingspans and sharply pointed beaks as long as a man was tall. Growing back from their heads, the terrys had huge, crimson crests.
Patiently, Bron and Karl waited. A few hundred yards away, the other pairs of hunters waited by their own kills. Three days went by, but seldom did a terry come so soon. Bron said that when the stench of the bait became unbearable, it was time to watch for terrys.
Three more days they waited. The stink of the rotting antelope made them feel sick to their stomachs. A cloud of flies hovered over the carcass.
"Now the terrys will come," Bron had said the next morning.
And come they did. At first, they were just tiny specks against the blue sky, smaller than the flies. Then, as they began to circle, Bron gave Karl a prod. Karl knew what was supposed to happen. The snares they had set around the carcass would catch the terry by both feet. The snares would not hold a terry long, but good hunters needed only a few seconds. Karl's job was to run in close with a padded stick and get the terry to bite it. For, after its claws, which could disembowel a man or throw him for yards, the terry's best weapon was its sharp beak. While Karl kept the stick between the terry's jaws, Bron would drive a spear into its heart. Then they would both retreat and wait until the giant creature died.
But there was no guarantee of success. All too often, something went wrong. A terry might be snared by only one foot and then prudent hunters would let it go. Sometimes a terry would fly off, snares and all. And even the best hunters were occasionally wounded or killed. It took courage to face the terry, courage which, even at this late moment, Karl was not sure he had.
There was no time to think now. A terry was landing, beating the air with its giant skin wings and settling onto the sand near the carcass.
The snares went off, catching the terry's feet.
"Now! A perfect terry kill!" yelled Bron. "Come on.
Together they leapt from their cover, Karl clutching the padded stick and Bron wielding a long, obsidian-pointed spear.
As they ran toward the struggling terry, Karl was horrified by its size and its hideous screech. Gray-green, fifteen feet tall, with bare leathery wings reaching out twenty feet on each side, it glared at him down the length of its long beak, its eyes as red as its crest. Karl thrust the stick up to the terry. The great beak parted and snapped at it. With trembling arms Karl gripped the stick tighter as the terry bit again, its head only a foot away from his face.
Suddenly Karl heard the stick crack. If it broke, he would have no protection—he would be killed. Panic overcame him. His only thought was to flee, to get away from the monster. He released the stick and ran. When he was clear, he turned, just in time to see the terry aiming its long beak at Bron.
"No, no, not Bron!" With an anguished cry Karl ran back toward the terry to take up the stick again. But he was too late. He watched helplessly as the terry stabbed its beak deep into Bron's back.
That was all that happened. The terry died quickly, for Bron had speared it just before he himself had been stabbed. If he had had two seconds more, he could have jumped clear. But now he lay on the sand, Karl holding his head.
"Bron, I'm sorry," Karl cried.
"No, Karl, it was my fault," Bron gasped. "You said you weren't ready. I shouldn't have pushed you." Bron coughed, and blood covered his lips. Then a look of horror crossed his face, and he stiffened. "Karl, they will accuse you of cowardice. Don't let them kill you! Choose banishment—for me. Legend says the desert is endless, but I know it isn't. Cross it. You can find a new life on the other side."
Bron's body relaxed. By the time the other hunters came up, he was dead.
"What happened?" one of them demanded, looking at Karl, then at Bron's body. "Why did you run?"
"My stick broke," Karl said, confused and overwhelmed with grief.
"You should have used your arm," someone said angrily.
"This stick?" cried another, picking it up and thumping it on the ground. "This stick is as sound as terry bone."
Karl sat up with a start. A pink light had crept into the doorway of the adobe dwelling where he was imprisoned. It was dawn. If he chose execution and met his death bravely, it would wash away the disgrace of his cowardice, pleasing his father. If he chose banishment, the disgrace would remain, but his life would be spared and he would have to leave Karanga forever.
Scuffling noises came from outside. A young hunter, dressed in a flyer's knee-length leather pants and fur-lined vest, thrust his head into the doorway. It was Garth, son of Bron. He was several years older than Karl and was already a respected hunter. But he had always been jealous of his father's affection for Karl.
"You killed my father!" Garth shouted at Karl. "Execution is too good for you. Choose banishment so I can follow you and cut you out of the sky."
Before Karl could speak, the guards at the door seized Garth and pulled him back out of the doorway. Karl looked sadly toward the light.
A messenger entered the room. "The chief will receive your decision now," he said. "Come with me to the meeting ground."
With his heart beating so hard that it was painful and his legs feeling weak and wobbly, Karl followed the messenger outside. A path had been cleared for him through the silent crowd. Koron, the chief of the Amonte tribe, stood on a raised mound at the center of the village, waiting for Karl. As Karl stumbled forward, all his relatives and friends and other members of the Amonte tribe looked on solemnly.
"What is your decision, Karl?" asked the chief.
Until this moment, Karl did not know what his choice would be. Now his only thought was that he did not want to die. Somehow he would face the desert. He would cross it as Bron had wished him to do.
"Banishment," he blurted.
A gasp came from the crowd, and they stared at Karl in disbelief. Now the stain on his family's honor was permanent.
"Your choice makes you twice a coward," the chief said gravely. "Are you sure? Is that your final wish?"
Karl nodded, staring at the ground to avoid the eyes fixed upon him. His skin, his whole body seemed to burn with shame. At least his mother who was dead didn't have to see this.
"Your decision is received, Karl. You will gather what belongings you want to take and leave Karanga forever. You must go into the desert immediately. If you are seen again after today, you will be hunted and killed as the dread lizard, devourer of children."
Karl understood. He would rather face the desert than the hunters of Karanga. He turned and walked to his father's house to gather his things. Nobody was there. All would stay away until he had left. Quickly he secured the long bundle that was his kitewing. Then he packed a hunting bag with needles and gut, a large square of terry leather, a knife and spear, rope, fire-making tools, and a few handfuls of dried meat. When he came out, his brother, Lars, was waiting for him.
Though younger, Lars was taller and more solidly built than Karl, who was small and wiry. And even though Lars had always pleased their father well, while Karl had always disappointed him, there was no animosity between them.
"Karl, don't leave us," his younger brother sobbed. "There has to be another way. Maybe Father can talk to Koron."
"Koron has received my decision, Lars. I must go."
Karl embraced his brother so tightly that his sobs were silenced. "Be brave, Lars. Don't be like me."
Then, fighting back his own sobs so that his brother would not see them, Karl picked up his kitewing and hunting bag and began hiking up the valley, away from the pueblo-like village that had always been his home.
In an hour the sun would be high and hot, heating the land and creating the columns of rising warm air called thermals. As all Karangan flyers, Karl knew from experience that a kitewing could only be glided downward and that to fly higher it had to be flown in rising air. The most common sources of rising air were the thermals that developed nearly every day in Karanga. To fly cross-country, a flyer circled within a thermal until it carried him high into the sky. Then he left the thermal and glided straight until encountering another. Thermals were the "steppingstones" that Karangan hunters used to travel over the vast distances of their arid land, and it was on them that Karl would ride.
When the sun had grown warm Karl climbed the steep side of the valley until he was high above the bottom. Then he set up his kite wing, snapping the thin lengths of terry bone into place and tying them fast. Next he stretched the supple membrane of terry leather over the framework and deftly tied it. The huge kitewing glider took shape. Karl fitted himself into the harness and grasped the horizontal bar in front of his chest with both hands. It was by moving his body sideways or forward and back that he was able to control his flight.
In four running steps Karl was in the air and had slipped his feet into their leather loops. He banked sharply and rode the air currents still higher as he traversed the slope. When he came near the top of the ridge, he banked again and glided out over the center of the valley, searching for a thermal.
Karl was in his own element now and for the first time in days, he felt at ease. The rush of air and the creaking of his kitewing were soothing sounds to him. Of all the men and boys in the village, he was the best flyer in a kitewing. He could turn quicker, climb higher, and glide faster. And he had an instinct for finding lift that was unequaled by any. It had been said in the village that Karl could fly better than a terry.
Soon Karl sensed the slight tremble in his wing that signified a thermal. Instinctively he turned so as to stay within the column of rising air. Around and around and higher and higher he flew, until he could see out of the valley. Then he straightened his course. He would fly west toward the next valley and then the next, until he came to the edge of the great desert.